By Michael Krueger

If something can go wrong, it will. There are so many ways to mess up what seems to be an ironclad plan that it will make your head spin.

A good fitness program is no different. It needs to include endurance, nutrition, strength, and flexibility in more or less equal parts. You’ll need to have a goal (or two or three) and a plan or plans to accomplish those goals.

Just reread the previous paragraph and you can see there are a lot of ways that you can (and will) go astray.

Let’s look at the missteps other have made, so you can make new ones!

Getting Started

We’ll get the most common mistakes out of the way first. These are the ones that derail 90 percent of new exercisers, then we can talk about what it takes to really make being fit and strong a focal point of your life.

There are so many ways to go sideways when attempting to transform your health and fitness that it’s hard to know where to begin. Almost everyone starts off on the wrong foot, but since there are so many “wrong feet” to choose from. I’ll just try to hit what I consider to be the major ones, the ones that will kill a new exercise program within the first couple of weeks.

People equate thinness with fitness, so most people who start exercising want to lose weight. The desire to “drop” a few pounds is almost a universal desire when starting a fitness program. The worst thing you can do when wanting to lose weight is to stop eating. Crash diets that severely restrict caloric intake to the point where your body feels that it’s starving is not a good way to begin. Nothing good ever comes from these diets since they cause you to become dehydrated, weak, and grumpy. Odds are you won’t last a week on them, so aside from not losing any weight, you also get to feel like a failure. If you do stick with a starvation diet for any length of time, your metabolism will slow down and your energy levels will plummet. When you finally start eating again you will binge eat for a week, lamenting that “Diets just don’t work for me.”

It’s important when trying to lose weight to watch your food intake, but rather than count calories just pay attention to the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins you consume. If you eat fresh unprocessed foods it’s very hard to overeat. In fact, if you monitor the type and quality of the foods you eat, you will be amazed at the sheer volume you can consume, because natural foods tend to be so much less calorie dense than the processed stuff that merely passes for “food”.

The simplest way to know precisely what you are eating and to avoid processed food is to cook for yourself. I know that this is a tall order for most people. Aside from the time involved in shopping and preparation there is the fact that most people aren’t very good or creative cooks. Eating nothing but salads because “they are good for me”, or rotating the same couple of meals over and over again is a sure fire way to fail big time.

Fortunately, it is possible to eat well even if you eat out a lot. By choosing better restaurants and making better choices from the menu, you can eat healthful and satisfying meals. If you avoid fried foods, anything listed as “crispy” or “battered,” big chunks of red meat, and white bread, you will be well on your way to a greatly improved diet and a healthier you.

Another mistake is to try to do huge amounts of cardio in order to “burn” fat and calories. There is no question that putting in mile after mile on a treadmill will use up calories, but it’s much more time and effort effective to not eat those excess calories to begin with. Remember that as a rule of thumb, it takes about a mile of running to burn 100 calories. Think about that the next time you order a creamy coffee drink or eat just ten peanut M&M’s.

Another issue with the “use excessive cardio to get thin” protocol is that you will in all likelihood hurt yourself. If your body isn’t eased into high-volume repetitive activity, your muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints will get inflamed and sore very quickly and that will lead to overuse injuries such as tendinitis and stress fractures.

Use cardio for what it’s meant for: to improve your heart and lung efficiency. By creating a reasonable and progressive plan for your cardio (and sticking to it) you will be able to increase the volume in a safe and controlled manner. After that, you will be using more calories in your training, but it will be as a side effect of your cardio rather than the reason for it.

Many people who want to lose weight miss the boat by not incorporating strength training into their plan. Aside from the obvious benefit of getting stronger, strength training jacks up your metabolism so that you use more calories over a longer amount of time when you’re finished working out than when you do just cardio.

Once again though, I want to reiterate that the idea of using exercise strictly as a vehicle to use up excess calories is not the point. And that brings us to the next mistake: not knowing exactly why you are doing what you are doing.


Having a specific goal and plan is perhaps the most important part of the fitness equation. If you don’t have a specific destination how can you make a plan to get there?

The simplest way to remedy that is to make small short term goals and figure out how to make them happen. I often ask new clients to write down their goals and what they will do to make them a reality. Some people struggle mightily with this assignment because it it requires introspection and creating a plan of action.

It’s rare that any new client has specific, time-sensitive goals when he first starts a program. When we start working together to set up daily, weekly, and monthly goals, some clients get cranky and worried. They quickly realize that it’s going to take a lot of work and discipline every day to meet those goals, and that doesn’t make them happy. After some discussion, they begin to understand their previous failures were caused by not having goals and not applying any discipline. They begin to see that if they don’t change; they will simply fail again.

Most people make their goals way to0 long-term with no benchmarks along the way to evaluate how the plan is working. When the goal is to “lose 20 pounds this year,” that allows for regular failures; in their mind, they have all year to succeed. Of course, those types of “plans” are vague and, at times, totally nonexistent. This causes a loss of focus, and soon they forget that there was any goal whatsoever.

By having a good plan and many short-term goals, you’ll find that you’re more in control and you’ll also have more and regular successes to celebrate and to keep you moving forward. It also allows you to tweak the process to deal with problems that came up along the way.

Find Your Way

By avoiding the obvious mistakes, you can streamline your journey to your fitness goals. Aside from the errors I’ve mentioned, you probably have a few personal ones of your own that you’ve made along the way. These are the issues that sabotaged your previous attempts to fulfill your fitness dreams.

If you apply the lessons you’ve learned from your mistakes and the personal wisdom you’ve gained from those struggles toward setting your new goals and charting your new course you’ll become virtually unstoppable…

…now, that’s what I call a plan.

Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.

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